The long-running conflict between Rutherford County’s Administrator of Elections and the Republican-controlled Election Commission may be ending.
Last summer, Administrator of Elections Hooper Penuel filed suit against the Republican members of the Rutherford County Elections Commission for allegedly breaking state and federal law by attempting to replace him with another political appointee.
The suit resulted in an injunction against the commission preventing them from appointing a new administrator.
“They have reached an agreement that will be discussed at Monday’s meeting,” said Gary Blackburn, the attorney representing Penuel and several other Democratically appointed elections administrator across the state.
“It’s a reasonable outcome to the case,” he said, adding he can’t talk about the details until the election commission officially accepts the settlement at its regular monthly meeting Monday, Feb. 1.
On a related note, the Tennessee Supreme Court “respectfully (declined) to accept the questions” about whether county elections administrators are employees of the county in which they serve or employees of the state of Tennessee.
The court was also asked to rule on whether state law that prevents hiring and firing based on political affiliation applies to elections administrators.
The court said it needs more information pertaining to rule on the case and summarily dismissed the request to rule.
The request was made to clarify a state attorney general opinion that said it is against state and federal law to fire an employee based on political affiliation, unless they are in a policy-making position and elections administrators are not policy-making posts.
Many Democratically appointed county elections administrators have been replaced across the state for Republican appointees.
Blackburn explained local election commissions may have violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, as well as the Tennessee Constitution by firing Democratically appointed administrators for Republican appointees.
Last year, Blackburn filed suit in federal court on behalf of seven county election administrators from across Tennessee who have been fired this year since the Republicans took control of election commissions statewide. Penuel, although still in his job, joined the suit.
“This ruling has no impact on his claims or the civil rights claims in federal court,” Blackburn said about Penuel’s suit.
Penuel was appointed in 2000, after having served as chairman of the Rutherford County Democratic Party. In 2008, he briefly considered a run for John Hood’s former state House of representatives seat, which was won by Joe Carr (R-Lascassas).
Michelle Willard can be contacted at 615-869-0816 or firstname.lastname@example.org.